The Gardens below Prague Castle

By Yvonne Michie Horn
This item appears on page 46 of the February 2019 issue.
View of the pond in the Wallenstein Gardens — Prague. Photos by Yvonne Michie Horn

I've long thought that the best city transportation is a pair of comfortable shoes. That was certainly true of Prague, a most walkable city, allowing me to hotfoot it through its historic Old Town Square, pushing my way through pretzel hawkers and throngs following umbrella-toting tour guides and past bike bars pedal-powered by beer guzzlers. I was on my way this May 2018 day to a Prague of serenity, the Gardens below Prague Castle.

Wallenstein Gardens

As I crossed the Vltava River via the Mánes Bridge that connects Old Town with the Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana), on my far left the Charles Bridge looked as if it were crawling with an unending stream of ants, hordes of people making their way over what may well be the most tourist-packed bridge in the world.

Once across the river, I walked straight ahead through the comparative calm of the Malostranska Metro station and entered the lush, green tranquility of Wallenstein Gardens (Valdštejnská zahrada) — gardens to wander before making my way to the Gardens below Prague Castle, which I knew were somewhere nearby.

The Wallenstein Gardens were constructed in conjunction with the Wallenstein Palace, now home to the Czech Senate. It was designed in 1623 for Albrecht von Wallenstein, who attained fame as a brutally successful general in the army of the Holy Roman Empire, and reportedly 26 houses, six gardens and two brickworks were razed to make way for his vast palace and surrounding gardens.

If I'd not been on my way to the Gardens below Prague Castle, I could easily have spent more than a happy hour exploring the four beautifully landscaped acres, enjoying the gardens' resident peacocks and watching the ducks float by in the large pond with its marble centerpiece fountain featuring Hercules and the Naiads.

As I followed walkways edged with manicured hedges, I came across an aviary and then an Italian grotto with artificial stalactites to finally emerge in the Sala Terrena, a gardened "room" where classical concerts and theater performances are frequently held.

Stepping through an arcade, I found myself on the street, where I knew in one direction or another the entrance to the Gardens below Prague Castle were located. Approaching a Senate guard, I showed him the address. With a smile, he pointed across the street, where a pair of ornate iron gates were swung open.

Gardens below Prague Castle

An archway, bordered by roses, leads to a series of Greater Fürstenberg terraced gardens.

Prague Castle was heavily defended during the Middle Ages, with the south-facing steep hill supporting its imposing presence abristle with fortification. The beginning of the 16th century ushered in a period of peace, and terraced vineyards and Italian-style Renaissance gardens attached to palatial edifices gradually replaced demolished ramparts.

Like most private gardens, through the years they were subject to redesign, with the 18th century ushering in miniature versions of the Baroque grand gardens of that time. Like their grander counterparts, they were created for show, with invited "audiences" completing what might be called a theatrical-horticultural performance dedicated to the importance of the garden's owner.

Five interconnected gardens make up the complex: the Ledebour Garden, the Great and Small Pálfy gardens, the Kolowrat Garden and the Small Fürstenberg Garden, so named to reflect their original owners. Between 1988 and 1999, extensive, one-by-one renovations rescued them from crumbling disrepair. In 1992, the Gardens below Prague Castle, along with the rest of the Historic Centre of Prague, was UNESCO World Heritage listed.

The iron gates on the street opened into the Ledebour Garden, where rhododendrons as big as trees were in glorious full flower. A staircase took me to the terraced part of the garden, where a sign indicated that a fee was charged if visitors wished to continue on.

Fee paid (CZK100, or $4.50), and armed with a self-guide brochure to the garden, I explored the series of palatial gardens via decorative, connective staircases with terrace plateaus unfolding on either side. Some contained small vineyards, fruit trees, herb gardens, formal parterres filled with flowers, a piece of sculpture, a pond, a fountain, a greenhouse….

But, given all that, and although my brochure told me that careful historical work preceded each restoration, I found a sense of sameness. That was quickly forgiven, however, as I paused to take in breathtaking views of the red-roofed city stretched before me. A standout view could be seen from the upper reaches of the folly-like Bellevue tower, located in the far-eastern corner of the Lesser Fürstenberg Garden.

Greater Fürstenberg Garden

There are views of red-roofed Prague at every turn in the Gardens below Prague Castle.

As I reached the uppermost terrace, it seemed logical that one should be able to exit directly into the castle grounds atop the hill. Not so. To do that, I returned to the street and continued a few steps to another wrought-iron-gated entrance, this time to the Greater Fürstenberg Garden, which, for some unfathomable reason, is not part of the Gardens below Prague Castle complex but is divided by a wall that runs from the street level to the high terraces above.

The Greater Fürstenberg Garden is greater indeed, encompassing the entire hillside from sidewalk to the castle grounds above. I followed a path edging its park-like lower level to a charming summerhouse, where a dour woman in black grudgingly accepted my payment of the CZK50 fee charged to enter.

Laid out in the same fashion as those on the other side of the wall, here the terraces were more extensively gardened. My brochure told me to expect a planting of more than 3,500 flowers, 8,500 trees and 2,200 roses. I was not disappointed.

Nearing the top, the short staircases between the terraces turned into a zigzag of — my guess as I traversed them — some 200 steps to the exit on the castle grounds.

With that, I wished my "best city transportation" good speed as I made my way through the hordes awaiting entry to the castle, most of whom, I'd venture to say, were completely unaware of the historic, gardened tranquility lying just below.

Visiting hours

Roses in bloom in the Greater Fürstenberg Garden, Prague.

The Gardens below Prague Castle (Valdštejnská 158/14, 110 00 Prague, Malá Strana, Czechia; phone +420 257 148 817) are open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m in April, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. from May to September and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. in October. They're closed November through March. Entry costs CZK100 (near $4.50).

The Greater Fürstenberg Garden (Valdštejnská/Staré zámecké schody, 118 08 Praha 1 - Malá Strana, Czechia; phone +420 607 524 293) is open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. in April, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. in May, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. in June and July, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. in August, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. in September and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. in October. It's closed November through March. Entry, CZK50.

The Wallenstein Gardens (Letenská, 118 00 Praha 1- Malá Strana, Czechia; phone +420 257 075 707) are open 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on weekends from April through May; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. weekends, June-September, and 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. weekends in October. They're closed November to March. Admission is free.

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The steps leading to the Bellevue tower, plus a statue along the way, in the Lesser Fürstenberg Garden — Prague.
Palace buildings — Gardens below Prague Castle.